Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Reagan:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

The Reagan Years: Targeting the Achievement Gap

Technically, the Hawkins-Stafford amendments repealed the ECIA and its block-grant emphasis and returned to the categorical framework of the ESEA. Moreover, after several years of lax federal oversight under ECIA, the Hawkins-Stafford amendments returned to the idea that federal aid should involve close federal monitoring in order to ensure measurable gains in student achievement. The chief aim of the Hawkins-Stafford amendments was to focus federal categorical programs on closing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. As one policy analyst noted, "On both sides of the aisle, both chambers of Congress, and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, a feeling existed, not always articulated, that, after more than two decades, Chapter 1 [or Title I] should be doing more than help [disadvantaged] children make modest gains; it should be helping to close the widening gap that remained between them and their more advantaged peers." In short, the Hawkins-Stafford amendments reinforced the idea that federal aid was necessary to equalize educational opportunities-and outcomes-in the public schools.

The year 1988 saw not only the passage of the Hawkins-Stafford amendments, but also the establishment of a National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) "for the expressed purpose of making NAEP more responsive to the interests and concerns of various constituencies" by authorizing state-by-state reporting. NAGB took it upon itself to change the way that NAEP scores were interpreted to the public. As Lorrie Shepard explained, "Instead of average scores and descriptive anchors showing what American students 'could do,' achievement levels were developed on the NAEP scales to show what students 'should be able to do.'" At the same time, however, the federal government permitted each state to determine on its own what its students "should be able to do." It shifted the emphasis of federal education policy from inputs to outcomes but still left the precise definition of outcomes up to the individual states. (In 1988, the Council of Chief State School Officers received the blessing of the U.S. Department of Education to set the content standards for NAEP's mathematics test.)


A majority of states set the lowest standard of improvement allowable under federal regulations: "normal curve equivalents" (NCEs) simply "greater than zero," which meant only the slightest measurable improvement from one school year to the next. (NCEs are not the same as grade levels, but they are analogous in that they compare progress made from year to year for students of the same age on a national scale; average students gain three NCEs per year on standardized tests.) Even states that set a standard of less than one NCE per year were found to need improvement. Some states set a more "ambitious" standard of one full NCE per year and, in those places, the proportion of schools found to need improvement was larger (despite the fact that "average students gained three NCEs per year"). A few states set a standard of negative NCEs-meaning that declining student achievement was deemed acceptable from year to year. Needless to say, giving states the freedom to set their own standards did not always lead to the kind of "accountability" for achievement that federal officials wanted.

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